Leading With My Vitae

down-barnesCandice Dowd Barnes is an assistant professor of early childhood and special education at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. She received her doctorate at Argosy University in Schaumburg, Illinois. Here, Dr. Barnes explains that earlier in her career she believed she had to present her qualifications to students in order to gain their respect and the acknowledgment that she belonged in the front of the classroom.

As an African-American professor teaching at a predominately White university located in a southern “Bible-Belt “state, I find the idea that I have to lead with my vitae to justify my credibility disturbing. Having felt the sting of racism in other situations, I was not naïve to the thought that I would perhaps encounter individuals who questioned my credentials or expertise. I was surprised by the insensitive, disrespectful, and frankly, racist statements and conversation from some of my students.

I am a teacher educator. This is important only because I am partly responsible for the knowledge, skills and dispositions these teacher candidates craft. In our degree program, candidates are fortunate to have several field experiences with students from various ethnic, racial, social and cultural backgrounds; and students with varying degrees of disabilities. Therefore, it is extremely important that these candidates are sensitive, culturally responsive, and empathetic and have an authentic awareness of who these children are.

The majority of my students are White females from working to middle-class families, whose first experience with an African-American professor is with me. Certainly, that does not excuse their comments, but it does explain, perhaps, something deep in the psyche of some. For others, I would submit they are not conscious of stereotypical perspectives and biases they internalize and verbalize.  For example, there was a student who told a story of her first experience being around African-Americans was during her freshman year in college. This is not particularly surprising. However, what was surprising was her admitting she was “scared.” It reminded me of the infamous scene from John Singleton’s movie, Higher Learning, where Kristie Swanson’s character was visibly uncomfortable in sharing an elevator ride with Omar Epp’s character. I probed her feeling in an attempt to understand where that fear came from.  I gathered that much of her knowledge and beliefs about of African-American came from media, and her family. This is typical of most individuals. We are often influenced by our sights and sounds, and greatly influenced by our families. While that is understandable, we often times limit our thinking and understanding when we retreat from seeing the perspectives of others, or cower at the idea of engaging with people who might look, behave, and feel differently.

One another occasion a student told a story in class of how she made every effort to teach her sons to be sensitive and respectful to others. She explained how she made a decision to move them from an all-White school to a school with a little more diversity. According to her, the plan backfired because the two African-American children in the school moved shortly after her sons began attending.  It was not until she came to the conclusion of the story that my thinking and listening stalled. In her conclusion, she said, “finally my kids’ school got a Black one.”  I immediately stopped and asked, “What do you mean a Black one?” Everyone, including this particular student, became extremely uncomfortable. I was appalled by the insensitive comment.

What do these stories have to do with my leading with my vitae? Well, these stories illustrate the bias, suspicions, and thinking that many have about African-American people in general, but also relate to the disdain some have for African-America instructors and professors. Your credentials, your experience, your expertise, your integrity, in some instances, your authenticity come into question. Therefore, to avoid and lay many of those questions and concerns to rest, I led with my vitae when introducing myself to my students for the first time. I told them about my degrees, how much experience I had, what research I’ve done, as if being hired by this institution was not enough to justify my credibility. It was and is a source of extreme frustration. At times it felt demoralizing.

However, the approach to lead with my vitae was as much about me as it was my students. At times, I became angry with myself and questioned: Why do I feel the need to do this?  I wondered if others have a similar dilemma. What role might gender play? Did my Caucasian-female colleagues have this same issue? Did African-American male professors share this concern? I have yet to pinpoint a singular answer. I believe it is a multilayered quandary. Anecdotally, I purport it may be a race, gender, regional, and values issue. Clearly, there are some students who reject the idea of having an African-American professor. These students have deeply rooted beliefs and values instilled in them by their families. Therefore, an African-American professor challenges their current scheme of thinking. They are confronted with a different perspective, a different ideal, and a different vision of a race of people. We do not fit the images that are often portrayed on TV, film, in music, videos, and through social media. They now have a new perspective — a disorienting dilemma that, if they are open to receiving this new information, will transform how they see African-Americans, in particular.

I also believe it is more prevalent in certain regions than others. Having previously taught in large metropolises — Dallas and Chicago; this was not my experience. The biased I experienced in those regions related more to gender and age, than race. That is not to say I did not encounter racism, but it was more covert than overt. More often than not, I was judged on my talents, abilities and knowledge, than the color of my skin.

There is an unquestionable history of racism throughout our southern states. I wonder what one might find if they examined how African-American instructors and professors are perceived by students at predominately White universities in small to midsize communities? I would venture, there might be a higher incidence of students who question the credibility of those professors compared to students at predominately White universities in large communities and cities? Students coming to universities from primarily rural communities might demonstrate a higher degree of distrust and fear of African-American professors, than those from large, urban, or inner-ring suburban communities.

In conclusion, leading with my vitae became a way to manage the questions, slay the doubt, and support my credibility to stand and deliver course content in a university classroom. Recently, I made a conscious effort to refrain from taking this action. Time has, in part, affected the necessity to lead with my vitae. I have a reputation among the student body now. Students pass information along to others, and this has led to an awareness and acknowledgement of who I am. Still, the question remains, how many professors, especially African-American professors, enter their classrooms on the first day and lead with their vitae?

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  1. This post is so frustrating to me. Dr. Barnes leads with a statement that she thought she’d encounter individuals who questioned her credentials or expertise. Oddly enough, none of the “insensitive, disrespectful, and frankly, racist statements” she gives as examples were actually directed at her or were in any way indicative of student beliefs about her ability to teach. If students don’t believe we can teach them anything, they either argue with us or drop the class early on. Instead, she recalls (uncomfortable) teachable moments with white students in Arkansas (duh!). Both I (a black man) and my white colleagues hear similar statements from some white students when race comes up in their classes. I don’t over-analyze those occurrences as “students feel SAFE being racist with White profs” anymore than I feel like “students feel FREE to be racist” in my classes. Students are in college to learn beyond their culture upbringing; they’re going to say dumb stuff. If Dr. Barnes feels like she has to lead with her vitae, it’s because we keep telling our female and Black colleagues to stereotype their students and see every ignorant (in the “doesn’t know better” sense) statement about race or gender–almost never DIRECTED at the teacher–as an affront to their authority. I could be wrong. Maybe there are some examples of direct challenges to her credentials that she hasn’t shared with us, but based on the evidence supplied here, I just don’t buy her accusations.

    • Thank you for your response. You saved me the effort of a reply to Dr. Barnes’ quizzical accusations. We seem to be too intent on over-reacting to every incident of racism (ignorance)out there without recognizing it is not up to them it is up to us. It is not the stimulus, it is the response that matters.

    • You are wrong,Mr. Davis. Here’s why. Gender walks through the door when women of color teach, no matter the venue, but especially in predominantly white universities and colleges. Ongoing discussions with my colleagues, to include Korean-American and Chinese American female colleagues, reveals that the hierarchy of gender and race create a different dynamic for women, and yes, even my white female colleagues as well. Example: One of my colleagues, a very tall, white, gay male is rarely, if ever questioned about his teaching methodologies, his vitae, etc. On the other hand, I’ve had young white men come to the door of my classroom, state that they are in the wrong place. When I ask to see their course schedules, and it clearly states that they are in the proper course and section number, I reiterate to them that they are actually in the right place. I have given up arguing with those who state that they are in the wrong classroom. Instead,I quietly agree with them. And, I do not teach in the Deep South, although I was born a Southerner.

      However, it seems that even now the dynamics have changed somewhat for even my white male colleagues. Sometimes, some of us have had to lay out where we obtained our schooling, who served as our graduate advisors, etc. The incoming students occasionally seem to have learned that in order to throw us off our feed, they have to merely question our skills and abilities. Anyway, I’ve given you gentlemen an example. I’d be glad to offer more and to also dig up more from my Southeast Asian, Latino, and even Middle Eastern female colleagues. Over-reacting? No. One acquaintance several years ago at another, albeit research institution, was bombarded with having epithets hurled at her when she entered the classroom, seeing “Nigger” scrawled on the whiteboard. Eventually, she had a nervous breakdown. I doubt any of you would have endured such savagery because male privilege is respected far more than any of us are often willing to admit.
      How do you respond to students who do such vile things? Rhetorical question.

      If the predominantly white administrations are uneasy in handling such situations, what options are left to you as a faculty member? Move and face this all over again. Come on, guys! We do not live in Edenic times. That Ivory Tower is occupied by so many who are truly ignorant and convey what they have learned in their homes, from their peers, etc. And don’t besmirch Arkansas. I’d be willing to bet that you will find such behaviors occur even more in Ivies. But what do I know? I’m just an old woman of color who is gladly eyeing retirement. This young lady is just buckling up to take a ride on the Race/Gender Rollercoaster.

    • Hello Mr. or Dr. Davis,
      Although I am not quite sure, how/why this post frustrated you. However, Dr. Barnes noted several examples of how some of her students were simply sharing their experiences, views, etc. Moreover, she spoke about the freedom and the ease in which some of her students shared their views on who they “thought” she was. In other words, they shared their experiences and feelings about having a Black woman serving as their instructor. As reprehensible as some of their comments were, they had and were given the right to speak their views, thoughts, and experiences.
      All Dr. Barnes did was to share “her” experiences. We must honor the fact that her experiences are her experiences. Why does that frustrate you so much brother? Your experiences are “Your” experiences, mine are mine…
      If you question her credentials, ask her to share them with you. Although I have never met the sister scholar, I am sure she did not win her credentials in a Crap Game or the Pool Hall :-). Lightened up on the sister, brother.

      **One generally cannot really appreciate the gravity of the comments like those expressed by Dr. Barnes, until its “their turn.” I empathize with her, I have had such experiences in my academic life. Leading with her vitae was her way. Perhaps, when and if your turn comes, you’ll address it differently. And, I would never say to you that you handled it wrong. Why, because your experience will be your experience.

      Be well and remember to; always pay close attention.

      From a brother to a brother.

      Peace & Blessings
      Charles Richburg, Ed.D.

  2. I can relate to this so well. I also encounter this experience with many of my colleagues. It’s really a shame that in the year 2013, we are still experiencing this.

  3. I was initially hesitate to write this article primarily because it is somewhat inflammatory, perhaps even, provocative. However, since this article was published the reviews and feedback have been mixed. There have been professors from around the country who have contacted me in support or to engage in further discourse. I appreciate all responses and opportunities to discuss this concept or challenge.

    It is important to note that most of the supportive responses have been from women of color who have found themselves facing some of the same or similar challenges. I have heard from individuals who are currently researching the influence of race and gender on students’ attitudes about professors. While I realized not all folks share my view or have a shared experience, sometimes we need to call a zebra, a zebra and not a horse.

    In some ways, I think one of my questions was answered in part. Perhaps men of color do not have the same experiences and women of color in this respect. But, I think we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore, downplay or dismiss other people’s truths. As I said in the article, I do not engage in this practice now for many reasons, but I certainly acknowledge that this might be, and is, a reality for many professors.

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